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Andrey Platonov. Chevengur. Translated by Robert & Elizabeth Chandler. New York Review Classics, 2024.

Ludmila Ulitskaya. The Body of the Soul. Translated by Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky. Yale University Press, 2024.


ART HAS LONG BEEN ENTWINED with suffering. In The Spirituals and the Blues, James Cone quotes the response of an enslaved man asked where Black people got their songs: “I’ll tell you; it’s dis way. My master call me up and order me a short peck of corn and a hundred lash. My friends see it and is sorry for me. When dey come to de praise meetin’ dat night dey sing about it. Some’s very good singers and know how; and dey work it in, work it in, you know; till dey get it right; and dat’s de way.” It’s an eloquent breakdown of artistic production under conditions of horror: natural gifts plus technical knowledge plus the careful, repeated process of folding in pain until it transforms into beauty.

Not everyone respects this equation. Philip Larkin, who spent World War II as a student at Oxford and then a librarian in Shropshire, once dismissed Wilfred Owen to the second rank of poets because he was a “war” poet, “not one who chooses to commemorate or celebrate a war but one who reacts against having a war thrust upon him.” We, or at least Larkin, withhold our highest praise from such a writer, for “a poet’s choice of subject should seem an action, not a reaction…. ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland,’ we feel, would have been markedly inferior if Hopkins had been a survivor from the passenger list.”

It’s a debate I held in my mind as I approached the recently translated works of two “dissident” Russian authors, or at least writers who found themselves at odds with their respective eras’ authoritarian governments, whether they considered themselves to be writing dissident literature or not. The first, Andrey Platonov’s novel Chevengur, newly translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler and stuffed at the end with their typically eloquent and erudite footnotes, fulfills all the hopes we might have for a novel set around the Bolshevik revolution. Written in 1928, published only in fragments until 1972, and banned in the Soviet Union until 1988, it’s full of wild Russians, strange raggedy men of skin and bones and soul, suffering out on the steppes, asking great questions with great absurdity and greater pathos. It’s a mess, with tremendously compelling characters and plot threads created and then dropped scattershot, but also a work of genius. The novella-length opening section, taking place before the revolution and following a vagrant who only loves machines and the son of a fisherman who throws himself into a lake out of curiosity about death, has a hallucinatory power, wrapping you in the kind of spell normally reserved for myth and fairy tale, but without ever quite straying past realism. And then we get the revolution and its aftermath, where zealots long for communism the way a mystic longs for God, in a country where “around ten percent of the nation were indeed crazies who were up for anything, from Revolution to praying to God in a forest hermitage.” Here, we mostly follow the orphaned son of the fisherman, Sasha Dvanov, who becomes the engineer of a Red Army troop train before meeting a Don Quixote–like figure who rides a horse called “Strength of the Proletariat” and fights for communism and Rosa Luxemburg. Ultimately they join the town of Chevengur, which is trying to live in the communist utopia the revolution has brought. It doesn’t work out super great.

Chevengur’s revolutionaries lack practical knowledge and kill without mercy. One Chekist calls to mind a communist version of Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit when he looks upon a dying merchant and thinks, “With a bullet inside them the bourgeois, just like the proletariat, wanted comradeship; without a bullet, however, they loved only property.” Knowing certain elements of Platonov’s history—that Stalin once wrote “scum” in the margin of one of his novellas, that his fifteen-year-old son was accused of terrorism and espionage and sent to the gulag only to contract tuberculosis, that Platonov cared for his son as the disease slowly took him, that this left Platonov infected and he died himself eight years later from the same disease—it is easy to read the novel from a smugly self-satisfied Western posture: “Look at this monstrous failed system! Good thing we never went red!” But one does not need novels to learn that the Russian revolution was not a smashing success, nor does the role of anti-communist writer fit Platonov himself, despite his persecution and his at times horrifyingly honest authorial eye.

Platonov has sympathy for his holy fools. He was a philosophical materialist and a lover of machines, especially locomotives, which he hoped might liberate the working classes from their drudgery. This utopianism led to his participation in the revolution—and his ultimately unsuccessful attempts to irrigate the steppes. He paints a portrait of a failed utopia, yes, but also a portrait of the impoverished, often starving peasantry prior to the revolution. His holy fools yearn for utopia for a reason.

Early in his career Platonov declared, “There has never been real life on earth and it will not appear soon.” I read Platonov’s pessimism as a secular analog to the pessimism of Augustine, who knows that the city of man will always persist, full of strife and lust for power, but also knows that this does not obviate the need to strive for the city of God. “If we want to destroy religion and are conscious that this has to be done, since communism and religion are incompatible,” he wrote in 1927, “then, in place of religion we must give the people not less than religion but more than religion. Many of us think that it is possible to take faith away without giving people anything better.”

Communism and technological utopianism seem to offer that faith, giving a sense of direction and solidarity to the working people despite the fact that the promised utopia never really seems to arrive. Or rather, the fact that utopia will never arrive is, perhaps, why it works for his purpose.


If Platonov only superficially fits into the schema of dissident writer, Ludmila Ulitskaya’s recent collection, The Body of the Soul, doesn’t fit at all. The cover of my volume quotes Masha Gessen declaring her “a voice of moral authority for differently minded Russians,” and her personal conduct has been courageous both under communism and under Putin. In 1970 she was fired from her job for distributing samizdat literature. She began publishing fiction in 1990 and, as her public profile grew, she leveraged her fame to oppose the ever more repressive Putin regime. She published correspondence with one of Russia’s political prisoners in 2009, helped coordinate the anti-Putin protests of 2011 and 2012, publicly opposed the war in Ukraine, and is regularly attacked in the Russian press. Which of course makes it awkward that I found this collection to be fine. Pretty good. Some stories better than others.

Ulitskaya creates marvelously observed characters, often at the intersection of cultures. In one, an Azerbaijani woman and her Armenian wife prepare for her coming death from illness, and the delicacies of the cultural and social complications are lightly navigated through a brisk plot that mostly concerns itself with the particularities of both women and the depth of their relationship. Another, the story that stays with me most powerfully, tells of a “mixed-blood, half-Baltic, half-Polish” woman who lives her life unattached, since “the fear of falling into another person’s power was stronger than all other fears proper to women: of solitude, of childlessness, of poverty.” As she ages and her faculties ever so slightly begin to slip, she searches for a doctor who will offer her the pills she’ll need to kill herself when the time feels right. The doctor she finds, a Jewish man (“Maybe there was something in what people said about them—saboteurs, poisoners,” she thinks when she selects him), ultimately agrees, only to find himself starting a late-life romance with this self-sufficient, strong-willed woman. Plot is the engine for character here, rather than dense psychology, and the effect of the story as it moves forward, and as the woman’s plans are derailed by happenstance, is powerfully affecting.

At her best, Ulitskaya offers an appealing vision of a richly cosmopolitan world where individual loves and personal choices push characters to navigate outside the seemingly fated paths “of the opposing forces of nature and myth, of the enmity of weak people.” Which, if we insist on reading her through the “dissident” lens, makes the world of her fiction fundamentally opposed at the deepest level to the ideologies of dictators and warmongers.

Ulitskaya is less successful when she reaches for moments of transcendence. In one story, a pair of sisters experience a series of revelations about their late mother as they recite the lines of a prayer, and the scene is grating, implausible, and cloying all at once. Other moments in the book just leave me indifferent, as in a story where a woman becomes a moth and settles among other moths and butterflies in a place where, she declares in the final, plodding line, “there was no sign at all of any Kafkian insects.” The transformation is done competently enough, but no more.

It’s disappointing, because I’m the sort of reader who tends to fall for this kind of thing. I’m a romantic, a sucker. I want to believe in the sisters’ revelation-through-prayer and the paradise of moths. So why doesn’t it work? More to the point, why do I find my religious yearnings more satisfied by the work of Platonov, the philosophical materialist?

One of Ulitskaya’s stories tells of a latchkey child who goes from watching crows raise their young outside his window (a sequence Ulitskaya sketches brilliantly, with thrilling attention both to the natural details and the child’s excitement and eventual boredom) to life as a photographer. Applying the viewfinder to what he sees, “life acquired meaning, and its meaning consisted in this very frame.” He comes to specialize in landscape photography, and in his work he wants “to combine human beings with nature, but the scale of human beings and the scale of nature refused to be combined.” At first this seems to be because man, so physically small, is dwarfed by the majesty of nature, though the end of the story suggests that man, no matter how inarticulate, contains more than mountains.

For Platonov too, man finds himself articulated less through speech than through work and machinery. “Zakhar Pavlovich observed in locomotives the same hot excited strength that in a working man remains speechless and without any outlet,” he writes. “Usually a metalworker only talks well when he’s had a few drinks; inside a locomotive, however, man always feels he is big and terrible.” And later, as the same character senses death’s approach, he notes, “So it often goes with craftsmen approaching old age; the hard substances they have been dealing with for whole decades secretly teach them the immutability of universal destructive fate.” Rather than dabbling in light magical realism, as Ulitskaya does, Platonov looks closely at the work of man’s hands and finds images that speak to a great but completely material reality.

What compels moral attention in Ulitskaya are not tragic and grand visions but wonderful evocations of what Nietzsche unjustly derided as the “little pleasures of the day and…little pleasures of the night,” interrupted as they are by disease and war and traffic accidents. The dangerous passions of Platonov’s work, emanating from and then causing great suffering, are mostly absent, replaced with the more mundane but often quite beautiful work of creating a life for oneself and those one loves.

Platonov’s characters, once they get the very basic necessities of life, long for more. “Now that they were getting better nourished,” he writes in a scene set soon after the revolution, “people had begun to sense their souls.” And oh, those souls are dangerous things, never having been domesticated by bourgeois life, left rawly exposed by hardship and violence and want. Safer to live in a society with tamer expectations, where spiritual yearning is added spice rather than the whole meal.

My life is much closer to Philip Larkin’s than Wilfred Owen’s, my gut sense of the world Ulitskaya’s, not Platonov’s. I never faced anything close to front-line combat, and the most ennobling and beautiful and profound parts of my life are my little pleasures of the day and little pleasures of the night—being a father and a husband and a son and a friend. And yet, I’m drawn to the extremes, and my religious sensibility is shaped by the shattering encounter not just with beauty but also suffering and guilt. How to reconcile these? Work it in, work it in, you know, till you get it right.



Phil Klay is a novelist and essayist. His most recent book is Uncertain Ground: Citizenship in an Age of Endless War (Penguin). He teaches in the Fairfield University MFA program.




Photo by Mihail Tregubov on Unsplash

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